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Sunday, August 08, 2004

Obstructionist Republicans?

Thirty Years Ago today, Richard Nixon announced he would resign the presidency.

Three months later, the Democrats picked up 49 seats in the 1974 midterm elections, among the largest gains ever, and two years later President Gerald Ford was unseated by Jimmy Carter.

But since then, the Republicans have done just fine, thank you, controlling the White House after four of the last six 1974 elections, and breaking through for majority status in the House and the Senate in 1994. It has been since 1960 that the Democrats have won a presidential election with a nonsouthern candidate.

Political scientists such as Ric Uslaner have been writing about The Decline of Comity in Congress for a decade. The House is an institution where the majority controls the day, period. They write and interpret the rules to favor themselves. Comity, What Comity? Republicans complained about the Democrats steamrolling them for 40 years, and for the past 10 the Democrats have complained of similar treatment. Being in the majority in the House means never having to say you are sorry, as evidenced by the leadership leaving the voting open for nearly three hours than the customary 15 minute grace period last November so they could twist arms and win on the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. (see Timothy Noah’s coverage of this, and potential bribery, in

The Senate is an altogether different animal. Historically, norms of equality and reciprocity have meant cooperation and compromise. The threat of the filibuster gives to the minority party a resource that means the majority party has to consider the minority’s point of view. So good leaders are still needed to guide the ship of state through the shoals of failed metaphors.

And apparently Bill Frist is not such a good leader, at least yet. Today’s Washington Post notes the trouble Frist has had finding his sea legs in the Senate. Among the mitigating factors noted is that Frist was thrust into this position without much warning – surely Trent Lott wishes Strom Thurmond had lived to be, say, 99 (or that no mikes were on, or that Lott had had a flat tire, or just plain didn’t say offensive things). And yes, it’s a closely divided Senate, at 52-48. But the article hints at some other difficulties, as well, including pressures within his own party:

Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), the third-ranking GOP leader, is the most conservative of the three [Frist, Mitch McConnell, from KY] and is a relentless advocate of his causes -- sometimes heeded by Frist, sometimes not. He was the driving force behind the GOP's marathon session on judges last year and this year's losing vote on the same-sex marriage constitutional amendment.

For the first half or better of the 20th century, their were cleavages within the political parties that moderate them – the Democrats were kept conservative by the strong contingent of southerners, and the Republicans had many moderates from New England (Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, a Senator from Connecticut from 1953-63, for instance, and more recently, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins from Maine) Over the past forty years – essentially since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – these cleavages within the parties have lessened, and the cleavages between the parties have increased. The largest factor is that South has increasingly trended Republican. Democrats switched parties (like Thurmond in 1964 or Rodney Alexander of Louisiana on Friday) or were defeated for reelection (like Al Gore Sr. in 1970), or now represent essentially safe seats in “majority-minority” districts. There are still a number of Northeast Republicans, although this group is shrinking in size, and most definitely shrinking in influence. Recall the switch of Vermont Senator James Jeffords from Republican to Independent in 2001. The House members especially are able to be more extreme in their leanings, as they have more homogeneous districts than senators.

A real challenge for Frist is that he in charge of an institution that has to pass legislation in exactly the same form as the much more conservative House. This has been an endless source of problems, especially given the behavior of the House, and the problems are revealed further in an article I saw read last Fall. In October, the Washington Post ran an article, “House GOP Practices the Art of One-Vote Victory” (by Juliet Eilperin , Oct 14, 2003 A1), which included these paragraphs:

Bringing legislation to the floor with only the narrowest prospect for victory has become a hallmark of the leadership of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Time and again, on high-profile bills involving Medicare, education and other programs, Hastert and his lieutenants have calibrated the likely yeas and nays to the thinnest margin possible, enabling them to push legislation as much to their liking as they can in a narrowly divided and bitterly partisan House.

More often than not, that direction is to the political right, and generally in line with President Bush's priorities.

The goal, insiders say, is to start negotiations with the narrowly divided Senate -- which is considerably more moderate than the House -- with a House position that yields as little ground as possible. That makes it more likely that the eventual compromise language will be more to House leaders' liking.

So what has Frist's response to the more conservative House been? Again, from today's Post:

Frist stood by when House Republicans handpicked two Senate Democrats who shared their views to participate in the House-Senate conference committee on the high-profile Medicare legislation, excluding Daschle and other officially appointed Democrats. They barred all Democrats from the conference on energy legislation. On other bills, Frist kept Democrats from forcing votes on their initiatives, such as raising the minimum wage and renewing the expiring curbs on some military-style assault weapons.

In order for this strategy to work, however, the Democrats' cooperation is still needed, if not in the House, then in the Senate. Back to October's "One Vote Victory:"

If the House strategy is good for suspenseful votes and animated arm-twisting, it offers nothing but cold shoulders for the House's 205 Democrats. "For my purposes, they're irrelevant," said Amy Steinmann, [Republican Whip Roy] Blunt's director of floor operations.

This, unsurprisingly, enrages Democrats, including those in the narrowly divided Senate, where Democrats play a much larger role. "The bitter partisanship we've seen in so many battles in the House has undermined the productivity of Congress overall," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).
That productivity could not have been aided by Frist’s decision to campaign in South Dakota for Jim Thune, who is hoping to unseat Daschle this Fall.

As Newt Gingrich found out, it is a lot easier to be a back-bench bomb thrower than to actually have to govern. And there still remains a cleavage in the Republican party, between the social and the economic conservatives. Note that the fiscally profligate House did not meet their own budget bill deadline because they did not want to have to take a direct vote on raising the debt ceiling. The LA Times reported on June 25 this year,

An effort by House Republican leaders to shield party members from having to cast a politically risky election-year vote to raise the government's borrowing limit was foiled Thursday by an unlikely group: Republicans in the Senate.
The House had voted Tuesday to make room for a debt-limit increase in its version of a $417-billion defense spending bill. Critics said that action was designed to provide political cover for fiscal conservatives, who could say they had to vote for the increase because they could not vote against defense.

But the Senate refused to include an increase in the government's $7.4-trillion debt ceiling as part of its $416-billion bill approved Thursday on a 98-0 vote.

The debt-limit provision underscored the sometimes chilly relations between the two Republican-controlled chambers.
(In Blow to House GOP, Senate OKs Defense Bill Without Debt Increase, by Richard Simon, A26)

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